In 1966, Kathe and John McKenna began responding to the desperate need they saw in the South End by renting a basement apartment on Upton Street and taking in the people they found sleeping on the street. They offered a cot and a simple meal—no strings attached—which was often met with skepticism and disbelief among the destitute and freezing men who called Tremont Street their home. Like many others at that time, the McKennas were moved to action by the social, racial, and economic injustice they witnessed, and their inspirations came from radical activists such as Dorothy Day, Mahatma Gandhi, Che Guevara, and Malcolm X.
Through a generous gift from a friend, the McKennas were able to purchase 23 Dartmouth Street, which they then named "Haley House," after the Boston social activist Leo Haley, who passed away that same year at age twenty-four. Individuals often suffering from chronic alcoholism—including many WWII veterans—were among the first guests to be offered coffee, bread, and soup in the ground-floor "soup kitchen." The rooms upstairs housed live-in staff, including a few homeless guests who joined the efforts. Haley House opened its doors between 7am and 9pm six days a week, and it was not uncommon for over one hundred men to be lined up along Montgomery Street, waiting for a meal. In addition to caring for those in need, the Haley House community has always raised its collective voice to challenge the attitudes, systems, and policies that create displacement and suffering. Over the years, Haley House has been home to dedicated activists who have called for peace and social justice, and who have merged their activism with daily ministering to the disenfranchised in a society with a tragically widening gap between the wealthy and those without basic necessities.
Over its more than fifty year history, Haley House has expanded its reach and adapted its approach in order to meet changing needs. In 1979 we became the first homeless service provider in Boston to create permanent affordable housing by purchasing a nearby rooming house. In 1983 we started an organic farm in Winchendon Springs, Massachusetts as a way of reconnecting with the land and bringing fresh produce into our soup kitchen, and in 2011 we shifted efforts to urban agriculture (a farm in Roxbury and a garden in the South End). By adding a bakery training program in 1996, and opening a Bakery Café in 2005, Haley House has created more intensive initiatives to support individuals in their move toward economic independence and meaningful lives.
Funds to support Haley House first came from the McKennas and a few friends; and has gradually expanded to include foundations. However, individual donors continue to provide the core support for our direct service programs.